“All revolutionaries are patricides, one way or another.” That’s a line from Yuri Slezkine’s classic of modern Jewish history, The Jewish Century. The book was published in 2006. A few years later, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, that line became a powerful lens as I reflected on the intergenerational conflict in American Jewish life in the late 1960s and early 70s.

My thesis was that a significant strain in American Judaism in those days involved conflict between generations of parents, grandparents, and children as they shaped their identities and relationships with Jewish life. Some of this was bound up with general patterns of rupture and reconstruction that have repeated in many immigrant communities–not just Jews–in the United States. “Old world” customs give way to new forms of life (‘patricide’ means killing one’s father), often accompanied by pain and strain. A younger generation looks upon its elders and breaks from their “outmoded” ways; the older generation looks upon its progeny and laments what they have become.

Obviously that’s a very rough heuristic. It works well for the movies (think of The Jazz Singer–both the Al Jolson and Neil Diamond versions) and it does reflect some truths in real life. But individual families and larger histories are, of course, more complex than that. As my doctoral adviser, Robert Orsi, put it in a memorable note on a draft of one chapter: “No one speaks for a generation, not even Dylan.” In the case of American Jewish life in the 60s and 70s, that was reflected in the move to recover and re-embrace attachment to and expression of Judaism: in the Havura movement, the ba’al teshuva phenomenon, the rise of Chabad, an embrace of Zionism in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967, and a general reclamation of Jewish history and thicker Jewish identity among a younger generation that gained strength in those years.

This is already much more academic than most of my Friday reflections, and I don’t intend to rehash my doctoral work here. (If you’re really that motivated, you’re welcome to buy a copy. Here’s the link.) Usually I start these reflections with a personal story, not with a quote from an historian. So why all this today?

As I shared in my podcast this week, like many folks I’m freaking out a bit about the Seder this year. I’m worried about what feels like a moment of profound strain, even rupture–not exclusively a generational one (remember that line about Dylan), but along multiple lines that ultimately trace their way through our views on and relationships with Israel. I’m worried about how that’s going to be reflected at our Seder tables this year. There is so much pain, so much anger, so many profoundly conflicting views of morality, of what Torah asks and demands of us right now. I’m worried about our ability to stay together as a family, both in the immediate sense and, more collectively, as a Jewish people.

I have long been drawn to the last lines of the haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol, this Shabbat that comes immediately before Passover: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of YHVH. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction” (Malachi 3:23-24). The image of parents and children turning towards each other–the word in Hebrew is heishiv, from the same root as teshuva, the returning we do during the High Holidays–has always struck a deep chord for me, as Passover is, more than anything, a time that my own heart turns towards my parents and my children.

I write about this line virtually every year. Yet quite honestly I usually dodge the challenge presented by that very last clause, the one about striking the whole land with utter destruction. Too hard, not relevant, I tell myself. In this year, however, that simply isn’t and cannot be the case. There is literal destruction in the land and, with it, enormous destruction that has occurred in our language, our relationships, our people, our families, our hearts. And it’s the fear of seeing that destruction reflected at the Seder table that is freaking me out.

And so (say it with me): This is why we practice. To acknowledge those very deep and potent fears, to let them have their space–and then to make mindful, wise, compassionate, and loving choices. That is the very freedom from Egypt–Mitzrayim, the place of constriction–that the Seder is about, the spiritual journey we undertake every day and in every moment. As the prophet says, we can and must turn toward one another. It is in that turning, that opening of our hearts that enables us to live together peacefully, that we manifest our freedom as images of the Divine. May it be so for us this year.

Josh’s Friday Reflections

Every Friday morning, IJS President & CEO Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares a short reflection on the week in preparation for Shabbat. Josh weaves together personal experience, mindfulness practice, and teachings from the weekly Torah portion in a uniquely accessible and powerful way. Sign up to receive Josh’s weekly reflections here.

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